Myanmar: White card, bleak future

Myanmar: White card, bleak future

Some recent announcements by the Myanmar government should reassure all those who want to see democracy restored in this Southeast Asian country. Parliamentary elections planned for November this year promise to be much more transparent and inclusive than the one held in 2010. President Thein Sein has approved a law allowing a referendum on changes to the constitution. This has given hopes to supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), that a ban on her from the presidency may eventually be lifted.

If Suu Kyi, the most popular politician in Myanmar and a Nobel laureate, is barred from running for president because her late husband and two sons are foreign citizens, the tragedy of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims is that they are not citizens of a country where their ancestors have been living since the seventh century.

They can’t participate in the election because they are noncitizens or the so-called white-card holders. Rohingyas can’t vote in the constitutional referendum or the general election because of a presidential ruling in February stripping them of suffrage. Worse still, their white cards will expire tomorrow forcing them to face a future which is as bleak as one can imagine.

NLD has already expelled more than 20,000 temporary identification card holders from the party’s membership. The other registered political parties (nearly 70) may follow suit to comply with a legislative mandate barring noncitizens from democratic process.

From tomorrow onward, white card holders, who also include an unknown number of ethnic Chinese, Kokang and Wa minorities, may also find it difficult to travel around the country due to a lack of identity document.

There are an estimated 800,000 to 1.1 million Rohingyas. Of some eight million Muslims in Myanmar, about one in six is Rohingya. A people who live mostly in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, Rohingyas were forced to take white cards because a 1982 law disqualified them from any citizenship claims they might have had.

To make matters worse, the Myanmar government even does not want anyone to utter the term Rohingya because they are all “Bengalis”, a term used to legitimize denial of citizenship and rights to the group, though early Muslim settlements in Rakhine date from the seventh century. The term Rohingya was absent from last year’s landmark census.

Myanmar officials even chastised UN Secretary General Ban KI-moon and US President Barack Obama for using the term Rohingya when they visited Myanmar last year to attend the ASEAN Summit held in Naypyidaw.

They visited Myanmar immediately after the country had gone through one of its periodic spasms of ethnic violence that in the past two and a half years have killed hundreds of Rohingyas. As many as 140,000 of them were forced to displacement camps.

Since then, their condition has only worsened as Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar points out in her latest report, says she saw “no improvement” for displaced Rohingyas since her previous visit in July 2014.

Such is the hatred of the majority Buddhists toward the Rohingyas that during her latest visit in January this year, Lee was publicly denounced as a “whore” and “bitch” by a prominent monk.

The fact is Rohinglyas are the victims not merely of official policies but of ethnic and religious tensions created by some radical monks. This is what makes them despair of political reforms in Myanmar. In general, democracy works to the advantage of minorities, giving the most disadvantaged people a voice in the decision-making process. But Rohingyas know that democracy can also be used to raise suspicions and create fears about minorities in the minds of the majority. While the government intensifies its campaign of hate, who would risk votes of the majority by supporting a despised minority?

This places an additional responsibility on the international community who have released a statement affirming their support for free and fair polls in Myanmar. Of course, they should keep a watch on the conduct of elections so the government machinery is not used to intimidate its opponents or help those who would side with them. They must take steps to prevent the electoral politics in Myanmar degenerating into a race to decide who can say the most bigoted things about a helpless minority. More important, they must ensure that the options before Rohingyas are not “to stay and die or to leave by boat,” as Lee’s report to the UN Human Rights Council put it starkly.

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Burma’s army chief promises peaceful elections

Burma’s army chief promises peaceful elections


Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said the army would continue to usher Burma towards democracy, during a 30-minute speech at Burma’s 70th Armed Forces Day parade.

In a mass show of military force, army, air force and navy units paraded past the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) strongman, as jets streamed overhead and elite troops performed drills. Airborne soldiers abseiled from helicopters on ropes. Missiles, tanks and armed personal carriers lined the streets of Naypyidaw for the celebratunnamed-1ion, which marks the date in 1945 when Burma’s newly formed army rose up against Japanese occupiers near the end of the Second World War.

Much of Min Aung Hlaing’s address was dedicated to the upcoming election. The commander-in-chief acknowledged that this year’s vote would have a changing impact on the country. He went on to vow that the military would prevent disturbances to the country’s tranquility and would ensure rule of law.

While the military chief discussed the upcoming general election at length, Burma’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi was absent from the day’s parade. Sickness kept the Nobel Peace Prize winner away from the annual event, breaking a string of attendances running back to 2013.

“She needs to take as rest at this moment. That’s why she couldn’t attend the ceremony this morning in Naypyidaw,” a party source close to Suu Kyi told AFP, adding that she was “fine”.

This year’s Armed Forces Day comes at a time when the Burmese military is mired in conflict across the country’s northeast. Fighting in Kachin, Kokang and Shan regions has resulted in some of the heaviest Burma army casualties in recent years. The fighting shows no sign of abating, despite a positive outlook shared by both government and ethnic peace negotiators who continue to work towards a nationwide ceasefire deal. The government’s Union Peace-making Working Committee will sit for further talks with ethnic bloc the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team on 30 March.

Upcoming Myanmar Elections Threatened by Midnight Inspections

Upcoming Myanmar Elections Threatened by Midnight Inspections

Upcoming Myanmar Elections Threatened by Midnight Inspections

By Danny Gold

Casting a shadow on upcoming parliamentary elections that are supposed to mark a turning point for Myanmar as a burgeoning democracy and an ally of the West, a human rights NGO has released a critical report accusing the government of using an antiquated overnight registration law to harass and detain political reformists and activists.

In a 47-page report titled “Midnight Intrusions: Ending Guest Registration and Household Inspections in Myanmar,” Fortify Rights has detailed the oppressive policy that essentially makes having a sleepover illegal unless it is reported to the proper authorities.

The government of President Thein Sein, dominated by the military, has said the elections will be free and inclusive, but already there is fear that the law will be used to stifle political opponents and protests in the lead-up to the fall 2015 election. The Ward or Village Tract Administration Law requires all residents of Myanmar to report overnight houseguests to authorities. This gives the government authority to search houses at any time, leading to what people have coined “midnight inspections.”

This law, of course, is particularly troubling in a country with a burgeoning democracy movement.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest from 1989 to 2010, cautioned the West last year about Thein Sein’s alleged commitment to democracy: “If they really study the situation in this country they would know that this reform process started stalling early last year,” she said. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party are widely popular in Myanmar but she is prevented by a constitutional amendment from running for president because her children hold British passports.

Speaking of the law on overnight guests, a Burmese journalist told Fortify Rights, “When there is a revolution or any sort of serious anti-government protest, [household inspections justified by the guest registration requirement] will be used.”

During pro-democracy movements in 1988, 1998, and 2007, household inspections jumped in numbers to arrest activists and student leaders. Activists have said that they expect the same technique to be applied ahead of the upcoming election.

On March 10, in a possible sign of things to come, police beat protesters with batons, including monks, journalists, and students, after a weeklong standoff. The protest, attended by about 200 people, was against a proposed education bill; protesters had set out from Mandalay to walk to Yangon, but were detained in Letpadan, about 90 miles north of Yangon. The government of Myanmar accused protesters of using force, and there were reports of both sides firing at each other with slingshots, reported Reuters.

Dozens of student activists have now gone into hiding as police followed up the crackdown with house raids, according to Myanmar Times. “I feel that I am being pursued and I have to be very careful in my movements,” said Ko Aung Nay Paing, a student leader, at a press conference for the release of the Fortify Rights report on March 19.

“Authorities have long used the provisions to target activists, especially during periods of heightened political activity, so the risk of an increase in targeted inspections is high this year,” Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights, told VICE News. “We’re already seeing it. ”

According to the report, political activists told researchers that they “feared the authorities would plant evidence in their homes or arbitrarily arrest residents for political purposes.”

“This doesn’t bode well for upcoming elections,” Smith added. “The political forecast spells crackdowns.”

After decades of rule by a military junta, reforms in Myanmar started in 2010 and were championed by the United States and the United Kingdom. The military regime has been slow to relinquish power entirely, however, and many fear the slow progress of reforms is merely a façade.

“There are worrying signs of backtracking, and in some areas, backtracking has gained momentum,” Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, told reporters in Geneva last week.

In an exclusive review obtained by VICE News that Fortify Rights recently submitted to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on March 21, numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity were documented since the opening up of the country, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and state-sponsored persecution of ethnic groups.

“In terms of human rights, most reforms have been cosmetic,” said Smith. “In some cases, the abuses are worse than anything we saw before the so-called transition.”

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